Democracy-deficit : Sign of times

The Egyptian revolution, & Others

What does the word “revolution” mean? To revolve , to go round, to turn around. It means something 360 degrees, not just 180 degrees, which means just reversal.    

The Egyptian uprising 2011 has managed , or will perhaps manage 180 degrees so far , at best. The Nasserite revolution of 1950s had managed to overthrow the traditional monarchy and the British colonial rule , and replaced it with a benevolent and modern but military chieftainship . It had not been able to manage , what India had around the same time : to have a democratic structure of polity if only to the extent of civilian, open multi – party architecture , an independentish judiciary, plurally-held and public-spirited press ,and so on. Even in India then it was seen as much , and proved later to be all too fragile and nominal/formal.

Egypt`s 2011 revolution will perhaps complete that part of the unfinished task. Its non-violent, moral, nationalist new revolution has been Gandhian in character and has been inspiring and beautiful : a haseen revolution. If it succeeds , the military will for the first time in its history return to the barracks ( padded for the Mubarak-decades with MNC money ), and a civil , constitutional regime with multi-party , competitive democracy with a freeish press might come to prevail. Egypt will become somewhat like India. This will be no mean achievement at all – against the backdrop of a corrupt military-business snakepit, against Yankee- Israeli geopolitics, against the bloodsucking neoliberal economic imperialism. Egypt would indeed have wrested a lot from its Tahrir Square.

But look at India. Having become like India would Egypt manage to remove the unmoving poverty of the masses, remove the all-pervasive systemic corruption , shed the yoke of US- imperialism, banish the haunting economic and social insecurity? No.

Its revolution would remain 180 degrees – a semi-revolution , like India`s hustled revolution of 1947. Gandhian revolutions , like Mandela`s, Kenyatta`s, Neyrere`s, are essentially moral suations by the people and are for that reason necessary and important . No society can do its 360 degree revolution without these. But such Gandhian revolutions are not sufficient – they don`t go beyond 180 degrees. They can`t.

Hosni Mubarak was dethroned on the 18th day of the uprising. And what started from the day 19? Teachers, farmworkers, bankers, even policemen, started demonstrating for higher wages .

Here is the fulcrum, then. It is on the question of wages that revolutions begin to look beyond the Gandhian 180 degrees.

The wages question is and has always been the very heart and soul of a society. Ethnicity, language, nationalism, religion , etc are various qualitative features of a society but the fundamental , and determining, factor characterising it is the division of labour and its fruits between the workers and the employers – its class structure.                                                                

Marx did not suddenly spring this on us. Even the Great Greeks knew about this ; it is another matter that they did not classify their slaves as even citizen. In the engine-room of any society is this conflicting and intertwined dual quest of higher wages and profits; each gains only at the expense of the other. And State( more or less articulated depending on maturity of the society ) is the conceptual and organizational apparatus created by the employers firstly to provide military and legal weaponry/shields for themselves against the workers and , secondly, to adjudicate between the employers at cross-purposes. State is essentially based on mythology but is constructed with philosophy, sanctity, rituals and symbolism, pomp, and sacrificial practices : functional-mythologies are powerful things, we know. Without grasping the class-dynamics of a society it is impossible to have a sensible understanding of its sociology, politics, economics.

Uprisings of 180 degrees might throw off a tyrant for another less brutal; might banish one form of tyranny and bring in another. But to create a new social structure by doing away with class-division itself? Such a revolution – 360 degrees – has not happened anywhere yet.

Let us go a bit deeper into this. As the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions – the latter two billed explicitly as class-conscious revolutions – have petered out the central question thrown up in their wake was , interestingly, about democracy. Of the dozens of communist parties made after shattering of the USSR nearly three-fourth of them have the word “democracy” written into their names. The word is derived from Greek , literally meaning “ force of the people”, and its current business-model originally spawned in the small city-republics of ancient Greece is basically is about people freely electing their representatives into a council for governing their public affairs. This old model is still the market leader. Soviet , Chinese, Cuban , etc models have fared worse than this one. The Latin American societies are now trying out some newer models. Even this Greek model of democracy has had only a partial success and that that too in less than a dozen countries comprising less than 10 % of mankind. And this model applied blindly and hopefully in over 100 post colonial societies in Asia and Africa has not functioned at all or has been transformed into grotesque monstrosities and perversions. In short democracy has come to be somewhat like a fetish – something powerful, capricious, elusive.

Interestingly now that we have a roughly equivalent hindsight on the failed democracies of USSR and USA – supposedly polar opposites – it is startling to find how similar they actually were. A centralized federal State, large pervasive bureaucracies, far-ranging secret police structures, control of public opinion, isolation and surveillance of the individual, aversion to multi -party political expression, socially narrow elite enjoying constitution-subversive privileges : in respective of these both were practically mirror-images of each other. And historical records now available show how much the two competed and collided and kept each other in cross-hairs – arch enemies , unlike arch friends, cannot but be similar . Further, organizational structures and management principles of communist party of USSR show startling similarities with those of capitalist corporates !Hmm.

What of the half a dozen nations of western Europe? They are in size and social homogeneity close to the ancient city-republics of ancient Greece. It works there up to a point. So what is the big deal about democracy?

The devil is of course in the details. Like, right candidates may not be allowed to enter for elections ; after elections the representatives may instead misrepresent their electors ; elected council itself may be subverted by commercial or violent pressures; the elected may deform , defer, and eventually derail the electoral structure itself; etc. In short, in the name of “ force of the people” democracy might become instead a force against its people. We have seen a good deal of this, particularly in the 20th century.

Democracy “means that sovereignty is to the desires of the majority, without committing to any quality, value, or creed”, as has been recently clarified in the context of Egypt`s future by Ayman-al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda while advising the Tahrir Square to opt for an Islamic alternative – much to the anticipating shiver in Washington, Tel Aviv, and ,alas, even in New Delhi.

But this is nothing new. Most right wing reactions to the Greek-Westminster model of democracy has been similar. Theocratic strands of political entrepreneurship of Islamic, Christian, or Hindu varieties , and also the plain vanilla racial fascistic varieties like Nazis of Germany, Le Pen of France, BNP of Britain, and RSS in India have been for a long time pointing at some hollow core within this model. Their reservation is not clearly put, or it keeps getting slightly altered with each retelling, but this much is clear that this felt hollowness has much to do with social ideas older than democracy itself : ideas of morality, justice, community. These ideas are civilizational assets , in other words these are vital legacies from pre- class-division social experience. These are seen as being ignored or at least shortchanged in the Greek-Westminster model.

Curiously , this objection is often parallel to or even a continuation of the right wing`s objection – despite an overall acceptance – to modern market-mechanisms which are seen as having amoral, degenerate, subversive and chaotic attributes. This is not without deeper meaning. In India diverse thinkers such as Vivekanand, Gandhi, Tagore, and Premchand – hardly a reactionary bunch – have shared this distrust of markets and warned against it. This is not to be brushed off as a residual conservative instinct of an overrun feudal era, although a lot of the visceral hatred of markets or of democracy itself ( somehow complicit with markets) does indeed spring from an arcadian remembered feudal flat-earth of well-known horizons. This is , I suggest, a recognition of a true flaw of capitalist markets, but its characterization has so far unfortunately been mostly packaged in moral terms and sometimes , alas, even theological ones.

What of the left wing ?

The left wing interestingly shows a parallel ambivalence about democracy and even markets. Marx was of course the first to point out the inherent fetishism of commodities presupposed by capitalist market- mechanism : anything , but anything, can be seen as a use-value by anyone , and the market circulation of Money-Commodity-Money can be “blindly” complete with any mix of use-values being circulated( via exchange values) regardless of the “needs” of the society. A crude result of this recognition was seen in the USSR`s bureaucratic judgement of “socially desirable” commodity-mix of markets. China`s “market socialism” has been less crude but comes from the same understanding: Capitalist markets are socially irresponsible.

Curiouser is left-wing hesitation about democracy. Democracy is of course the ultimate goal of revolutionary emancipation of the working classes. At the same time the historical experience of actually existing democracies – of Greek-Westminster models – has been seen as fatally flawed. It does not contain the nonnegotiable internal guarantee against subversion and hijack by reactionary classes. A real dilemma, not transcended so far.

The working classes of Euro-America, historically the best evolved in the world, have witnessed that democracy can at best give them only a carping and capricious welfare-stateism – and the vestigial welfare-states are being rolled back all over since these are no longer required as a bulwark against Soviet Union. The USSR-style proletarian democracy was more revealing. It showed that even after a substantial smashing of old class-structures of society the damsel of democracy can be easily beguiled by tiny( party ) cliques, or even by individual dictators. China`s attempt at peasant-democracy was ambitiously ground-breaking indeed , but the subsequent Maoist and Dengist experiments seem to be throwing away the baby with the bathwater. It is noteworthy that most of the dozens of the Russian post-USSR new communist parties have felt it necessary to include the word “democracy” in their very names.

We are face to face with a real problem here. The value and need of democracy is self-evident. But the actually existing democracies have definitely missed – as pointed out by both the left and the right – some core ingredients. What are those? It falls to the 20th century to find an answer. Otherwise revolutions like the current beautiful Egyptian and Tunisian ones will not be able to go beyond 180 degrees.

Some pointers towards those answers :

One clue is from the times of the origin of the model itself , when the ancient village-republics of Greece were turning – based on expanded production by slave-labour – into newly prosperous city-states. In that burgeoning cultural atmosphere ideas of democracy were being culled from past experience of village-republics; Socrates was keeping up his open-minded questioning of the newly emerging “pure” ideas on governance of the Platonists, who were in turn being elaborated upon by the near-imperialistic schemas of Aristotle. Socrates got himself sidelined by insisting that democratic dialogues and debate were premised upon a pre-existing, common, and shared existence and consensus on the basic mores of the society; that abstractions can also be unhelpful; that the new youth were losing their spunk by their greed of the new wealth of their parental families. ( Sounds very fresh even today ! ) In the then newly rising urbanism of Greece the ancient village-republics were not yet completely forgotten; the elected city-councils had to be in session 24 by 7 ; and any citizen could and did at any time stand around during the sessions and listen , intervene, debate, and dispute with it openly as a matter of course. Some Greek plays of those times evoke this scenario very vividly !

The ancient moral consensus of a natural nativity and equality of all citizen was a given and real condition of life. Only on such a premise can democratic dissent and debate function as an instrument of collective will, as a directive principle for making collective choices. Otherwise it will tear the body-politic apart. Inherent in the Greek experiments was the thought – and it was also brilliantly articulated – that democratic dynamism can work beneficially only by riding upon a moral conservativism – morality as a distillation of the species` historical survival.

The point I am trying to grope towards is perhaps this : moral ideas of civilizational existence which unfortunately but understandably got transformed in the European medieval times into religious imperatives need to be rescued and redeployed into democratic political projects. Instead of a fake “post-modern” amorality we need to resurrect a re-modern democratic moral temper; and this new-old element has to be woven into political mobilizations, party structures & programs, and political culture itself. In short morality too , like everything else, is a contested terrain. The ruling elites would like to keep it as a deadweight of blind duties while the emancipatory forces would need it as a powerful revolutionary weapon. It is not without significance that

in the post-USSR literature we can see emerging a sizeable discourse on “ Marxist Morality”. The moral vector force is a prime active element – and active elements are notoriously hijacked by right wing forces – for engaging deeply with caste, racial, religious, gender, and tribal conflicts ; without this element our political action would remain merely as some sort of inert economism.

The understandable but overzealous rejection of the moral dimension by the European Enlightenment had introduced an unnecessary weakening of the revolutionary project. This was seen as early as the caricature of Jacobin reductionism of the French revolution and of course in the party-fundamentalism of the Soviet and Chinese projects later. The underclass revolutions in the ex-colonies in Asia and Africa – not as much though , interestingly, in Latin America – of the very same European powers have blindly copied , as they did many other things, this mistake and have needlessly disarmed themselves, while their Gandhis had latched on to the moral dimension without bothering much with the class questions. So this : moral dimension.

My second pointer has to do with the question of human scale and geographical size of the theaters of attempted democratic revolutions. For this question too a clue can be had from the city-republics of ancient Greece.

Passages from Plato`s dialogues and ,as already mentioned , many major Greek dramas give us a cinematic idea of how the electing citizenry and the elected council have a day to day close interaction as a routine. We get a sense of direct and “participatory” democracy at work. The human and geographical scale is local. It evokes Indian village panchayats. Our ideas about forms of democracy have originated from such settings. But it is odd that these have not evolved much after such beginings , or at least not as much as should have been expected in the next two thousand odd years during which the actual human and geographical scales of existing societies have changed manifold. City-states have expanded into transcontinental empires , shrunk back , turned into church feudatories , or into commercial enclaves, and still later emerged as “nations” with transcontinental colonies, and so on. Through all this ideas of forms of democracy have remained relatively immobile. This has generated an unnoticed deficit in compatibility, a misfit in correspondence in scales. This being so , to note that the underclass-oriented revolutions for democracy – in Russia, China – have been attempted in nations that are polar opposites in scale to city-states of ancient Greece, in fact are continental in human and geographic dimensions ! During the preparations for these revolutions , and after the revolutions – which were aiming at most comprehensive type of democracy – all that they had as reference points were the ancient Greek forms. Even today they are evaluated against those ! Surely this is not right; surely ideas of forms of democracy have to be relativistic to be practical at all ?

Of course there can be no “natural” scales for human societies a priori, simply because unlike other species human beings have taken societies beyond the historically given sustainable-scales of “nature” by collective use of productive tools. From its beginning itself the human species has differentiated itself precisely by its mode of production. History has shown that different scales have been optimum at different stages ; from slave labour city states of ancient Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia,India etc these changed for the provincial kingdoms of medieval Europe and Asia, and still different for the nation states of capitalist times . This evolution of scales can still be seen as relatively autonomous , but there has been another twist. Capitalism in Europe needed for its qualitative leap and later sustenance an extra hoard of wealth ( primitive accumulation ) over and above expropriation of peasant lands, and for this purpose the entire planet was brought under colonization. Despite later decolonization this historical coupling/decoupling has distorted till today the “optimum” scales of both the colonizers and the colonized. It is arguable that the post-19th century idea of a “nation” was actually a product of colonization experience. Little wonder that after substantial decolonization in the 20th century capitalism has lost its positive elan and has degenerated into some sort of militaristic warlordism – mainly of USA. No further wonder that the concept and borders of “nations” have started unravelling and are rapidly changing in 21st century into as yet unguessable future formations – even the number of nations has gone up rapidly during last quarter of a century!

In this entire flux surely the ideas, methods, and practices of democracy needed a parallel evolution. But that has certainly not happened. Odd, this. In 2011 CE Britain is still debating abolishing its House of Lords ! That the conservative forces be insensitive to this question is understandable but it is curious that the revolutionary forces too have been similarly blind. So this question : of scale. In his later work Prison Notebooks Gramsci was sensing this issue though not directly; today`s China is grappling with its complexities ; but the dialectics of scale remain unclear. Somehow both the immediately local and the overarching global scales have to resonate mutually. The neighbourhood mosque and the Tahrir Square.

My third pointer is about the economic sphere.

Using Owen`s labour theory of value Marx was the first to show how the social relationships of production of wealth are conjoined with and determine the social relationships of its “distribution”. Trade unions have therefore been rightly struggling at the sites of production. But since Marx`s time , look at the trajectory of the changing morphology of a company till today. Starting from a few dozen shareholders in the British and the Dutch East India companies it has changed and grown enormously into faceless transnational gigantic enterprises , funded by global “stakeholders” investing through the mediation of national and transnational “Funds”– insurance funds, pension funds, mutual funds, etc often bigger than national GDPs. The issues of ownership and control in a company have become more complicated. Workers of the world are not only also the consumers of the world , they have now become also the owners of the companies ( by investing their savings in the “funds” ) — though not controllers. And yet revolutionary action in the economic sphere has remained more or less confined to 19th century type trade-union initiatives ! Not only that , the trade unions too remain largely aloof from gender, environment, public health, and such issues. Strange , this stuntedness . No ?

The Company law of all nations has been the most actively self-renewing one of its laws, understandably so because privately controlled companies have gradually usurped most of the economic activities of nations. And in parallel the newer company laws read more and more like secular, democratic national constitutions of the Westminster-style. This is pregnant with much meaning. The shareholders of a company own it; every year they can freely vote to elect anyone at all to be the chairman/managing director of the company ( and control its working ); shareholders receive and approve the company accounts before they are finalized; they vote to elect anyone as an auditor of the company finances and also its bankers; they must vote to approve major decisions on investments, borrowings, and alienation of company`s assets. All this is amazingly already in the statute books , as if after prolonged and bitter struggles world communism is already at hand !

Hogwash of course. We know that the reality ( companies being private fiefdoms of individuals or of narrow oligarchies ) is in fact opposite of the stated position of the statutes, and this bogus constitutionalism reveals not only the hollowness of capitalist laws but also of the Westminster-style constitutionalism itself.

Apart from fictions in company law , there is more to companies. By close of the 20th century the true nature of capitalist companies has been so much exposed – mainly by peoples` awareness in Euro-American nations – that companies themselves have been forced to adopt mealy-mouthed PR cosmetics like “corporate social responsibility” , “corporate governance” , and a bit less vocally but also “corporate democracy” , “ corporate citizenship”, etc. There is yet another dimension : of technology. Capitalism has produced technologies like the computers, telecommunication , internet , etc which can be turned round instead to strengthen people`s class-struggles. The point is: all the foregoing is to highlight only some of the many terrific sites of democratic contestation that have been inadvertently but spontaneously created by the evolution of capitalist corporatism itself , sites which have been hitherto ignored by traditional trade-unionism and also by revolutionary party-programmes and struggles.

An illustration : when POSCOs, Tatas, Jindals, etc acquire tribal lands , the affected people may be made true stakeholders in these companies ; by allotment of equity shares , by forming tribal shareholders` panchayats , by the panchayats to send nominees to the Board of Directors , by open discussion of quarterly performance results and accounts in the panchayats , by the panchayats to appoint separate auditor , by open social- , labour- , and environmental- audits in panchayat aam sabhas , by networking with similar shareholders` panchayats in other companies , and with consumer rights , and human rights movements and watchdogs , by … you get the idea. Just an illustration. In short as capitalist companies have grown bigger (than many nations) and multi-faceted in their intrusions into nature, society , and thought , revolutionary struggles have not quite evolved proportionately to seize and use newer arsenals already available , besides fashioning new weapons. This should come on the agenda of Tahrir squares.

After the post-USSR gloom the ongoing Arab revolutions have reaffirmed that history is certainly not ended – only hubristic and parochial yankees can think so. At the same time history has also confirmed that no one – including Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, etc – has the correct line for revolution. The Arab revolutions are suggesting that new initiatives are available, and that a better world is still possible, as it always was.


About ctaposh

Cartoonist, poet, social activist, development banker, documentary filmmaker, reader of books and realities, ponderer of questions milling around.
This entry was posted in Dialectics, History, People, Politics, signs of times and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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